Today, I’m going to talk a bit about details. The devil is in them, after all, and there are some you really need to be mindful of when choosing a cutting board. The biggest one? Seams. Just like with pants, cutting board seams (the places where the pieces of wood are joined together with glue) are a big deal.
When looking at a prospective cutting board, you’re going to want to take a good look at the seams. Now, if that board was made en masse, with industrial-grade equipment, it’s probably going to have very tight seams. How do you tell? Well the less of a glue-filled gap there appears to be between the pieces of wood, the better. I’ve seen a standard of about 0.1mm mentioned as being ideal, which converts to ‘reeeeaalllly thin’ for us US standard measurement users. You know that saying “a hair’s width”? That, pretty much. Tight seams mean the board was clamped solidly during construction, the wood was cut straight, planed, and probably jointed too so it was as square as possible. It also means the assembler didn’t use too much glue. You also want tight seams in boards made by cottage industry types like myself too. Mind, they won’t all be perfect (even industrial boards aren’t) but as long as the majority of seams are thin, you’re good to go. This of course assumes the assembler used the proper glues and whatnot, but I covered that in an earlier article here.
Gaps and Blemishes
Still checking those seams, this time you want to examine and make sure any gaps have been filled with glue. This includes small knot holes, worm holes, and other blemishes that can create a pocket in the surface. I’ve also seen beeswax proposed as a good way to fill small gaps in cutting boards, especially damaged ones, but I think that a board shipped with beeswax used to fill gaps is shorting the customer. A board shouldn’t have any gaps when it arrives, ideally. Glue is a far more permanent fix than wax though, so if you see a few spots where the glue is a little thick or someplace other than a seam, that might be why. Since the right glue is food-safe and water-resistant, it’s the perfect patch. Later on I may do an article on more in-depth board repair than I spoke about in the care and maintenance article, but that’s a bit beyond the purview of this blurb.
Seam Pattern and Arrangement
Lastly, the pattern of the wood and the seams. For edge and face grain boards, this isn’t a concern. They only have one set of seams. But end grain boards are glued along the horizontal and vertical axis. That means they have twice the seams, and twice the chance to have errors. And part of this is due to the actual pattern of the wood blocks that constitute the board itself. At first guess, a checkerboard-like pattern would make sense; the blocks are going to be squares or rectangles most likely, and so when you arrange them they end up looking like… well a large square made of smaller ones neatly in rows. That’s fine, but it’s not as strong as it COULD be. The best, strongest end grain boards are made with a ‘brick wall’-like pattern. That is, the rows of constituent blocks are staggered from one another. Why is that important? Well because when two seams cross, they form an intersection. And that intersection is a weak point because corners are not very structurally strong. The wood fiber doesn’t have as much to hold onto compared to on the sides of the wood blocks, so it can tear away easier. The glue is doing more load-bearing that way. So you can get splits if you’re not a bit more careful. But if you use a brick-like patterning, you stagger your seams, meaning all seams end in a T-joint, where a seam encounters the side of a block, instead of another seam. Wood glue is strong, but only when it’s fusing wood to wood. Fusing to itself, it’s weaker. So the brick pattern creates more wood-to-glue contact, making a tougher board overall. See below for a visual example.
Note the tight, thin seams on each board. That’s what you want, ideally.
Now, this isn’t to say that symmetrically-arranged boards are bad. They aren’t. They just aren’t as structurally resilient as a staggered-seam board. But, they can look pretty darned good, and maybe that’s what you want. If you aren’t abusing your board every day, then the difference between a symmetrically-seamed and staggered-seamed board is going to be negligible, as long as you take care if it. Symmetrical seams are just a small sacrifice that can be made in terms of looks; the actual seam quality and material quality, as well as craftsmanship, are going to matter much, much more.